How long do people typically last in a corporate innovation role? What do they do next? And what is most likely to trigger a job change?
We wanted to learn more about innovation tenure and career paths, so we analyzed 152 LinkedIn profiles of people who’ve held innovation-related roles in the past, from innovation managers to Global Heads of Innovation to Chief Innovation Officers. Our sample included a wide range of industries, but was composed predominantly of US-based professionals (93 percent; the remaining 7 percent were professionals based in Europe and Australia).
To understand why people in innovation-related roles changed jobs, we fielded a separate survey in January 2019 which received 132 qualified responses. It’s worth noting that while these two samples — referred to below as the LinkedIn sample and the online survey — may have some overlap, they are not identical populations. We also sought out former corporate innovators and a recruiter who works in the innovation space to add their perspectives to the data.
The average tenure in our LinkedIn sample was just under four-and-a-half years (4.4, to be exact). We found that Vice Presidents of Innovation tended to have the longest tenures (5.4 years), and Innovation Managers the shortest (3.3 years).
“My experience has been that the product innovation folks tend to stay around longer, and the business innovation folks (think disruptive innovation, Horizon 3, etc…) tend to have a shorter life span in the enterprise,” says Rick Waldron, a former innovation and new initiatives executive at Nike and Intel. “The latter is the fish swimming upstream because of what Clayton Christiansen would call the ‘resources, priorities, and processes mismatch,’ and they tend to see their work get shut down after two to three corporate budgeting cycles (and ergo forced to find a new job).”
When we broke down the LinkedIn tenure data by industry, we found that tenures were longest in the chemicals and technology sectors (6.1 years and 5.5 years, respectively), and shortest in industrial manufacturing (3.4 years) and government and public sector jobs (3.3 years).
We also looked at the most common “next steps” after someone wrapped up a stint in corporate innovation. By far the most common next step was a move into consulting (27 percent of our sample), followed by entrepreneurship (13 percent). Following that, some of the professionals in our sample took on a different kind of role in a different industry (10 percent), or a similar innovation-related role while remaining in the same industry (7 percent).
Of note is that 40 percent of our LinkedIn sample went into either consulting, usually at small firms or sole proprietorships, or entrepreneurship following their time in corporate innovation. Thirty percent went into a role that was not directly tied to innovation (though some still had product development or emerging technology as part of their remit). And just 23 percent remained in a corporate innovation role at their new company. (It’s worth mentioning that to be part of the sample, professionals needed to either change roles in their company, or change employers.)
Waldron, who himself left Nike in 2017 to become an innovation advisor and coach, notes that “transformational corporate innovation is difficult, and the constant battle to change hearts and minds and fight off the antibodies to achieve the success takes a toll on the people driving that work. The consulting path can offer a respite from battling the matrix while providing the corporate innovation practitioner the opportunity to continue the interesting innovation work to which they are drawn. That has certainly been true in my case. After close to 20 years driving transformational growth business innovation within large enterprises, I had gained more than a few grey hairs (and the net count was down too!).”
“What we found very interesting in the research is that 27 percent of Innovation Leader’s sample went into consulting,” says Alex Pavlou, Managing Director at Bamboo Crowd, a recruiting firm that focuses on innovation roles. “We often find that consultants are looking to find a role in corporate innovation, so it’s useful to note that there is clear movement both ways. Further, the innovation consulting industry is crying out for corporate innovators — practitioners who marry both an innovation toolkit with operational expertise, experienced in going from an idea to market launch.” (While Bamboo Crowd is one of Innovation Leader’s strategic partners, it was not involved in sponsoring or conducting the research.)
When we could, we tried to identify promotions inside the professional’s current place of employment or an increase in their seniority that came with a job hop to a new employer; 21 percent of the professionals in our sample moved on to a job that was clearly a step up — whether or not they remained in an innovation role. But in many cases, promotions or lateral moves were not easy to identify because of the different relative sizes of companies, and non-standard use of titles in the innovation field.
A tiny 2.6 percent of our sample moved into academia after their most recent corporate innovation role, though many of the professionals who shifted into consulting or entrepreneurship also established academic relationships, typically as an adjunct faculty member or advisory board member.
The two industries most heavily represented in both our LinkedIn sample and our online survey were consumer goods and products, financial services, and insurance. In consumer goods and products, we found that professionals were more likely than the average to move into consulting as their next step (35 percent), and also more likely to move to a similar innovation role in a different industry (20 percent). In financial services and insurance, professionals were less likely than the average to go into consulting (21 percent), but more likely than the average to jump into the startup world (18 percent). They were also more likely than the average to depart for a more senior innovation role in a different industry (14 percent), or to go to a similar innovation role at another company in the financial services or insurance industry (10 percent).
What Triggers Job Changes?
To understand why innovation and R&D professionals move from one role to another, we fielded a short survey that focused on just that question. We asked, “If you’ve changed employers at any point in the last 10 years, leaving an innovation/R&D/new ventures role for any other type of role (even outside innovation), what was the reason for your move?”
The majority of respondents (65 percent) said their move was voluntary. But 20 percent said that they were the victim of a layoff or elimination of their role. Eleven percent said the entire innovation lab or initiative was shut down, or their budget was eliminated.Four percent of respondents said there was a different reason. Those reasons included:
- “All of the [reasons listed] above in the past ten years.”
- “My prior company was acquired by my current company.”
- “While the entire innovation group was not shut down, the area I was focused [on], associated with employee capability development, was no longer supported due to leadership change.”
- “Dysfunctional culture.”
Innovation leaders sometimes see jobs come to an abrupt end, says Naomi Fried, “when their programs are cut because firms don’t see them as delivering value, and budgets are tight. If innovation leaders can’t demonstrate the relevance of their activities, they are at risk.” Fried is a former innovation executive at Kaiser-Permanente and Boston Children’s Hospital. She founded a consulting firm in 2016.
‘Still in the Early Days’
With the online survey, we received enough responses from two industries (“financial services and insurance” and “consumer goods and consumer products”) to break out the data from those industries. (Each constituted more than 10 percent of the overall responses.) Of note is that moves in financial services and insurance were slightly more likely to be voluntary (69 percent), while in consumer goods and consumer products, there were more involuntary moves (32 percent) as well as closures of labs or budget eliminations (16 percent).
Innovators in many different companies are forced to “forge their own path,” says Rachel Antalek, a former Vice President of Concept Innovation at Starbucks. There is no clear route at most companies from the trenches of innovation to the executive leadership team. Two decades ago, Antalek says, “I was a brand manager at Olive Garden doing what we would now call innovation – both product innovation as well as experience innovation. I couldn’t aspire to be a Chief Innovation Officer, or even a VP of Innovation, as those titles didn’t exist. I knew, as did my managers, that I wasn’t destined to grow into the CMO, or head of R&D.” But after moving from Olive Garden to Starbucks, “the innovation mindset [at Starbucks] as well as high growth allowed me to chart a career in innovation. But even there, it wasn’t easy, and I had to direct my career, create my own roles, and convince leaders the roles were needed, and take much greater career risk compared to my peers.”
“While the innovation function has evolved significantly over the last 20 years,” Antalek says, “it’s still not a given that large corporations will have an innovator at the senior table. …We’re still in the early days.”
We see six key takeaways from this data:
1. Given the way that strategy shifts, executive changes, and other organizational turmoil can affect innovation groups, the average tenure of 4.4 years is longer than we would’ve anticipated.
2. Forty percent of our sample moving to consulting or entrepreneurship suggests that the opportunity to control one’s own destiny, take bigger risks with bigger upside, and share the expertise one has developed has significant appeal for corporate innovators.
3. It’s notable that the tenure of Chief Innovation Officers or SVP-level innovation executives is more than a year shorter than executives at the vice president level, and slightly shorter than Directors as well. It’s possible that a higher profile and a richer compensation package may not necessarily lead to longer tenure.
4. Professionals in innovation and R&D roles should be prepared for unpleasant surprises. Nearly one-third of our survey respondents (31 percent) told us that a role ended abruptly, as part of a layoff, termination, or an entire program being de-funded. That number was significantly higher (48 percent) in the consumer goods/consumer products sectors.
5. Career paths for corporate innovators are still far from clear; we did not see evidence in our sample of “ladder-climbing,” where individuals started as innovation managers and progressively worked their way up to SVP of Innovation or Chief Innovation Officer. What could change that? More SVP or C-level innovation leaders delivering notable results in large organizations, which could lead to more of those people being a standard part of the executive leadership team, and the creation of a more typical and templated career path for corporate innovators.
6. For those who stayed in a corporate role (as opposed to moving to academia, consulting, or entrepreneurship), we found a surprising amount of industry mobility. Of the professionals who moved from one company to another in our LinkedIn sample, 62 percent switched to a different industry, and 38 percent remained in the same industry.